Thomas gets back on the mound

USF senior pitcher Daniel Thomas, a 200-pound right-handed power pitcher from Pensacola is not a typical superstar.

“He is everything you would want as a coach. If we had more guys like him, I wouldn’t have to worry about coming to practice,” said coach Lelo Prado, who doesn’t need to tell Thomas what his role is on the team or how important it is.

Thomas spends a lot of time in the weight room and practicing his three pitches. He can throw the fastball, slider and changeup and is learning to master the sinker as well.

If he can add that fourth pitch to his arsenal, Thomas could have an amazing 2008 and a possible major-league career in front of him. A mix of power – thanks to a 90-plus mph fastball – and the ability to consistently get the ground ball out with the sinker when he needs it, could, at the very least, make him the poor man’s combination of Roger Clemens and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Derek Lowe.

Prado knows how valuable that makes Thomas. With most pitchers, teams know that winning is a possibility but not a certainty. Then there are the chosen few who have an intangible presence on the mound that makes losing seem almost impossible.

“There is no doubt in my mind that he can lead us to the (Big East) championship. We feel that he is going to give us a win every time he is on the mound,” Prado said.

Aside from his personal success, Thomas also takes time to mentor the talented but still young pitchers who will play for the Bulls for years to come.

“I learned how to have a hard work ethic (from Thomas),” said freshman pitcher Randy Fontanez. “He tells us that as young guys we have to step up together as a team. He shows us how to stay focused during the game and the mindset a pitcher has to have on the mound.”

Matt Quevedo, a sophomore pitcher and one of Thomas’ best friends on the team, thinks of Thomas as “by far the best teammate we have. He picks us up and motivates us on the field and, most importantly, off the field as well.”

The off-the-field relationship is what Matt cherishes the most. He specifically remembers a day when it was just him and Thomas on the field throwing and talking about baseball.

“(Daniel) is very knowledgeable about baseball,” said Quevedo.

That knowledge comes from Thomas’ love of the game of baseball since he was a little kid, when he looked up to Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens.

“As a child, I didn’t throw hard at all – that’s why I looked up to Maddux,” Thomas said. “Then, when I got to high school, I started throwing harder and I was like, ‘Huh, what do you know? Look at that.’ I played Little League since I was 4 years old. It was a good foundation for the future, and I have played baseball every year since then.”

Thomas played Little League at Forest Hills in Tampa, where his father, Keith Thomas, coached him until he was 14.

“I’m proud of both of my boys – Daniel’s older brother, Michael, is a Marine and is about to be shipped to an unknown destination. Daniel’s work ethic comes from within,” Keith Thomas said.

Daniel Thomas considers his dad a vital part of his life and his career.

Thomas’s father turned his son over to Frank Permuy, the baseball coach at Gaither High School. Thomas began playing for the varsity team his sophomore year and became the team’s second starter by his junior year.

“(Permuy and assistant coach Ray Reed) prepared me for college. They taught me to be a solid pitcher both physically and mentally.” Thomas said.

“Daniel is a great kid. We just guided him in the right direction. He has a lot of God-given ability and never quit. That is something the whole team picked up on and made us better,” Permuy said.

What seemed to be a road full of roses took an ugly turn during Thomas’ senior year, as he had to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow and missed his senior season.

Daniel has thrown curveballs since he was 13, and that could have caused the injury.

“I had grown by my senior year and put on weight, which might have had an effect on my tendons too. There is nothing I could have changed. I wish somebody could have taught me the proper exercises to strengthen my arm and my rotator cuff. If I knew then half the stuff I know now, I wouldn’t have had surgery,” said a reflective Thomas.

Thomas played in only three games during his senior year, but that was enough for then-USF baseball coach Nelson North to ask him to commit to the Bulls.

The problems didn’t end there, though, as Thomas had to undergo shoulder surgery for a torn labrum in 2006, and then suffered a bone spurt in his right elbow last May, which caused him to miss last year’s Big East Tournament.

“I thought about maybe not being the same when I came back all the time,” Thomas said. “I talked to doctors, coaches and I read books about the injuries. The rehabilitation process is mentally tough; it wears on you, which is why family and friends were very important for me. They told me I was going to be fine and to keep going; my teammates would constantly help me throw. I would also talk to my dad every day. He is the one that knows me the most.”

Despite the adversity, Keith Thomas knew his son would never give up.

“Daniel is a very strong young man. Not many players get through so many surgeries, and to see him rehab and get back up three different times is simply amazing,” Keith Thomas said.

2008 is a new year with a fresh outlook for Thomas, who is “determined to do what is best for the team.” He has only one obsession: to reach the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

“I just want us to get to Omaha,” Thomas said. “We have a very good shot of winning the Big East. Our pitching is young, but dominant. This is the best pitching staff I have ever been a part of. We will have plenty of run support this year that will save arms and save pitches. Thanks to that, let’s say that I have runners on first and third and one out, I don’t have to worry about keeping that run from scoring at all costs and only allowing two or three runs a game – I can just worry about getting the out.”

Prado believes that if Thomas stays healthy this season, he will be an All-American and be drafted sometime in the first three rounds of this year’s draft.

The Bulls want to make history and win the national title this year, and if that is going to happen, it will largely be thanks to how well Thomas fares against the best college batters in the nation.